Tom Horne's return as school chief generates excitement — and worry

Leer en español

In 2010, the promise of a visit from Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction to Tucson amid the battle over the future of ethnic studies brought out hundreds of students protesters, part of a wave of organizing in the years-long battle over the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American studies curriculum.

More than a decade later, that public official, Republican Tom Horne, will soon return to office for this third term as Arizona’s schools chief. He previously served from 2003 to 2011.

Horne is returning to the Arizona Department of Education with several big-picture goals. He’s expressed a desire to raise test scores, make classrooms more disciplined, and keep English language learners from accessing bilingual education.

But the system that he will oversee faces existential challenges.

A newly minted school voucher program will steer millions of taxpayer dollars to lightly regulated private schools. A major staff shortage has left schools across the state scrambling for teachers, bus drivers and kitchen staff. Total public school spending has hit a limit that could force massive budget cuts if the Legislature doesn’t act.

With those obstacles in mind, some education advocates said they hope to see Horne the candidate — who focused on hot-button issues like critical race theory — turn into an administrator who keeps the needs of all the state’s students and educators in mind.

“It’s going to be important for superintendent-elect Horne to remember that he is elected to represent all Arizona students,” said Stephanie Parra, executive director of ALL In Education, an organization that aims to increase the number of Latino education leaders in Arizona. Forty-seven percent of Arizona’s public school student population is Latino, and 64% is not white.

“Not just his constituency or his core base of voters, but every single student,” she said.

Who is Tom Horne?Who is Tom Horne? What to know about Arizona’s new superintendent of public instruction

School choice advocates celebrate

School choice advocates celebrated Horne’s victory. They anticipate Horne will be a strong ally in their backing of a bigger, uninhibited school voucher program. Following a legislative battle this summer, Arizona expanded its Empowerment Scholarship Account program to allow universal eligibility, making it the most expansive voucher program in the nation.

Horne has named Christine Accurso "executive director of the ESA division" at the Arizona Department of Education, Accurso announced Thursday on Twitter. Accurso has been one of Arizona's most visible voucher advocates. She encouraged people not to sign petitions that would have put the Legislature's decision to expand the voucher program before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot.

“We congratulate Tom Horne on his success and look forward to working with him to support and build on the early success of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program,” said Andrew Clark, president of the national school choice group called yes. every kid.

Steve Smith, Arizona state director for the school choice group American Federation for Children, said he was excited for a state education leader who supports not only public but also private and homeschooled students.

“Because Arizona is home to the nation’s largest Empowerment Scholarship Account program, it is incredibly exciting to finally have a Superintendent who supports the parents who are opting to use this program so they can freely choose the best education options for their children,” Smith said.

But provisions written into the legislative language of the school voucher program assure data will not be collected about the performance of students who receive vouchers, how long they stick with their new learning models, their race and socioeconomic background or how often families have to supplement private school tuition with their own funds. Arizona’s voucher program gathers less user information and has fewer accountability measures than many programs in other states.

Arizona educationWho is applying for private school vouchers? What we know

Horne has said he supports the voucher program because it helps low-income students access private education. But Horne would not be pinned down on modifications to the program that would help ensure it is accessible to low-income families. He would not say if he planned to advocate for more data collection to show that low-income families were, in fact, benefitting from the program, nor would he say if he would seek out an income requirement.

“We're going to try to make sure everybody's aware of the choices that they have,” Horne said.

He has also expressed his intention to support charter schools in Arizona.

During his previous superintendent terms, Horne generally defended the school funding status quo for district schools but pushed for charter schools to get more money. In the mid-2000s, he put forward a legislative proposal to bring charters closer to funding parity with district schools.

Arizona Charter Schools Association President Jake Logan said the group appreciates Horne’s educational approach. “The Arizona Charter Schools Association looks forward to working with him to make sure every student has access to an excellent education,” Logan said.

In his upcoming term, Horne said he would reduce administrative costs that he believes stifle charter schools’ efforts to innovate. He said it would be one of his main goals.

Concerns about Spanish-speaking students and teacher retention

Beyond promising to deliver higher test scores and support charter schools, Horne’s campaign platform included uncompromising positions on English language learning and discussions about race in the classroom. That worries people who advocate for immigrant students and wonder about Arizona's teacher shortage.

Horne has accused Arizona teachers of bringing critical race theory into the classroom and promised to root out its teaching through a reporting hotline. He also said he would champion English immersion instruction for students learning English as a second language.

Those promises build on the cornerstones of his first two terms as superintendent.

He led the effort to end ethnic studies in Tucson and implemented English-only learning with gusto. Critics said the way he acted on a measure restricting bilingual education that voters approved in 2000 made it difficult for Spanish-speaking students to transition out of English-only lessons, essentially shutting down the option for bilingual education, and led students to fall behind academically.

Horne’s continuing focus on controversial issues related to race, culture and language concerns some public education advocates who said the strained education environment in Arizona is already pushing teachers out of the profession, and that specific student populations, like English learners and LGBTQ students, could be adversely impacted by Horne’s policies.

Parra, with ALL In Education, said that the low performance of English language learners on standardized tests can be traced to policies that include those Horne instituted. Horne's critics said they not only disagree with his policies on language learning but see them as harmful and not following best practices on language acquisition.

“The system we have … is setting them up for academic failure,” Parra said. “Given the high population of Latino students in Arizona and English learners, we have to create systems where they can thrive.”

'My teacher just left':'My teacher just left': How Arizona's teacher shortage affects families

Beyond how subjects are taught in schools, Horne's return also sparks concern about who will be teaching. Arizona is already experiencing a teacher shortage, and increased education tumult may discourage current and would-be teachers, according to public school advocates.

A survey earlier this year by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association of 130 school districts and charter schools found that more than a quarter of the teacher openings that needed to be filled for the 2022-2023 school year were still vacant in September. The association said about four of every 10 vacancies that existed before the school year started were filled by teachers who did not meet full certification requirements.

Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, said she worried Horne’s divisive rhetoric would push more teachers away from the job. If he spoke more often to educators, Garcia said, Horne may see that their concerns are not about things like teaching critical race theory but instead center on helping students learn after two traumatic years of pandemic schooling.

“We don’t need divisive rhetoric. We need people who will listen” to teachers' needs and find ways to fill in the gaps, said Garcia, who lamented the loss of outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat. “We had one of our own who worked diligently to make sure students who in the past had been unseen were included.”

Beth Lewis, executive director of public education advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, said that she expects Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs to veto any legislative efforts that could hurt public education. But having a top education official who accuses teachers of biased instruction or grooming students for sexual abuse — refrains among conservative extremists who supported Horne’s campaign against Hoffman — would still hurt education.

“It will have a very damaging effect on teacher retention,” Lewis said.

Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic's K-12 education team. You can join the Republic's Facebook page and reach Yana at or follow her on Twitter @yanazure.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Horne excites school choice crowd, creates teacher retention worry